UK Women's Basketball

Mark Story: Delaware star Delle Donne's story a lot like Larry Bird's

Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne shot during practice Friday. Delaware plays Kentucky Saturday in Bridgeport, Conn., in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne shot during practice Friday. Delaware plays Kentucky Saturday in Bridgeport, Conn., in the NCAA basketball tournament. Associated Press

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — When people reach for a contemporary comparison for the style of play of women's basketball star Elena Delle Donne, Dirk Nowitzki is the name they often choose.

Like the Dallas Mavericks standout, the University of Delaware women's basketball icon is a tall blonde who combines a center's height (in Delle Donne's case, 6-foot-5) with a guard's shooting range.

With Delaware (32-3) slated to face Kentucky in a women's NCAA Tournament round-of-16 matchup Saturday at high noon in a sold-out Webster Bank Arena, "the female Nowitzki" is the primary obstacle between UK and its third trip to the Elite Eight in the past four years. "They have a really tough pressure defense," Delle Donne said of UK. "We have faced some (pressure) in this tournament, but nothing like this."

A homegrown fifth-year senior, Delle Donne has scored 33 points in each of Delaware's first two NCAA tourney games, comeback wins over West Virginia (Big 12) and North Carolina (ACC).

For the season, she averages 25.8 points per game, makes almost 47 percent of her three-point shots and almost 92 percent of her free throws. Amazingly for the player through whom Delaware runs most of its offense, Delle Donne has committed fewer turnovers (28) than she has played games (29).

"The biggest thing about Elena's growth as a player is she understands defenses a lot better than she did as a freshman," Blue Hens Coach Tina Martin said. "She now knows how to read the floor, where to look for the openings (in a defense), where to look for the cutters. And she's always had the beautiful shot you see."

Rather than Nowitzki, if you take in the totality of Delle Donne's back story, the better blonde basketball comparison for her from men's hoops might be Larry Bird.

Leaving UConn

Just as Bird, the future Boston Celtics great, famously left Indiana University in 1974 without ever playing a game for Bob Knight and the Hoosiers, so Delle Donne did the same to Geno Auriemma and his powerhouse Connecticut women's program in 2008.

By the time Delle Donne led Ursuline Academy to four Delaware high school state titles, she was the most avidly recruited girls' basketball prospect in the country. After narrowing her choices to Villanova, Tennessee and UConn, she cast her lot with the Huskies.

In June 2008, she reported to the campus in Storrs for summer school. She stayed for all of two days, then packed up and went home to Delaware.

For years, intrigue has surrounded the reasons such a gifted player left such a powerful program. Delle Donne has said in the past that part of the rationale for her departure was being away from her older sister, Lizzie.

Lizzie Delle Donne was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy. The only way for the sisters to communicate, Elena has said, is through touching and hugging. When she reported to UConn to start college, Elena said she realized she would be completely cut off from that contact with Lizzie, and found that unbearable.

Just as Bird dropped out of college basketball for a time after leaving IU, working on a garbage truck in his hometown of French Lick, Ind., so Delle Donne gave up hoops for a time after she left UConn. When she initially enrolled at the University of Delaware, she played on the volleyball team.

"At that moment, I knew the young lady was stressed out," said Martin, the Delaware hoops coach. "It definitely had to be overwhelming to her (after she left UConn) with the media and everything else. ... So I left her alone. I felt that she needed some personal space."

Just as Bird wound up returning to basketball at Indiana State, a far less prominent hoops school than Indiana, Delle Donne eventually came back to the game at Delaware, a Colonial Athletic Association member far from the bright lights of Connecticut.

Before last season, the Blue Hens had never won a women's post-season tournament game in either the NCAA or even the WNIT. In 2012, Delaware broke through with Delle Donne scoring 39 points in an NCAA round-of-64 victory over Arkansas Little-Rock.

This year, she has led Delaware to its first berth in the Sweet 16. In the victory over North Carolina, Delle Donne went over 3,000 points in her career (3,006).

Even amid massive home-state success, Delle Donne has faced adversity. She missed six games earlier this season after a reoccurrence of Lyme disease, a bacterial malady she initially contracted in 2008. The disease knocked her out of 11 games of her sophomore season, too.

This year, two of the Blue Hens' three defeats came without Delle Donne on the floor.

That vulnerability may have only made Delle Donne more popular.

Martin thinks that, in in-state popularity, her star player ranks ahead of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco, a New Jersey product who finished his college career at Delaware after transferring from Pittsburgh. "I will say Elena probably has a little bit of a leg up because she is a (native) Delawarian," Martin said.

Delaware's 2013 post-season quest means so much in the small state (population some 917,000) that Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and the vice president of the United States — the former Delaware U.S. Senator Joe Biden — were in the stands for the upset of No. 3-seed UNC.

"The vice president is absolutely amazing," Delle Donne said Friday. "He is one of our biggest supporters. More than anything, he's just so down-to-earth. He almost feels like a friend to us."

In his senior year, Larry Bird took unheralded Indiana State to the NCAA title game before falling to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.

On Saturday, Kentucky will seek to stop the Delle Donne/Bird similarities well short of a perfect match.

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